Re-discover Your Inner Child Again
As I move around the streets of my native Cuttack through its different seasons, I pass through different circumstances. During the rainy season, the streets get waterlogged, difficult to navigate. In the dry season, traffic logjams make it equally difficult to move around. It is not an easy life or an easy city. However, I notice one thing: rain or hail, sun or shine, the children I see on the streets are always happy and joyous. They love the rains that fall from the skies, they exult in getting thoroughly drenched; they love the shiny cars on the streets, and sometimes sit in bullock carts and pretend they’re driving cars. In fact, I have always been struck by how easily children seem to find joy and pleasure in the small things that so many adults treat as annoyances or a waste of time.
When I was a child, I too remember how beautiful and fantastic everything around me seemed to be. There was so much to discover, so much to explore. The universe was a garden, and it was ours to play in to our hearts’ content.
But inevitably soon enough, we do become adults. Our environments become familiar and predictable, and no longer stimulate our curiosity. Rain becomes an irritation because it will wet our stylish clothes. Traffic jams make us curse because they delay us from important meetings.
This chapter is about the importance of reconnecting and re-discovering the Inner Child that sleeps in all of us. Awakening that Inner Child has profound benefits for not only your happiness but your ability to successfully achieve your Vision, Mission and Goals, as you will understand as you read further.
What makes childhood magical
There are children in the world so poor that they cannot afford toys. Their parents cannot buy little toy cars or Lego kits or cricket sets. Yet, those children can take wet mud from some garden, and shape some cars out of them. When they are quite dry and hard, they will have a full Grand Prix, making engine sounds with their mouths. They creatively wad together 50 or 60 plastic bags into a perfect sphere, tie it tightly together — and presto! They have a football to play with.
A child’s world is magical because it is colored by his or her imagination. There are angels and fairies around the corner, and if one closed one’s eyes, one could fly to the moon. Nothing was impossible, and the word ‘fail’ didn’t exist. The only limit was the imagination. Butterflies had secrets, fireflies were for chasing, rain was for playing in, the stars were dots to be joined with lines in the mind, and everything was a festival — specially festivals like Holi, Diwali, Eid and Christmas themselves. I remember my world of toys, books, flying kites on Makar Sankranti — and it all seems now far away but utterly beautiful.
It is true, not every child lives such an idyllic life. In fact, the harsh reality is that the vast majority of children on the planet today live in the most trying circumstances, in families crumbling under wars, homelessness, joblessness, domestic strife, violence and so on. And yet, even on this terrible soil, the child’s mind retains the potential for innocence and unfettered joy.
At some point, the child grows up.
The difficulties of adulthood
Children are taught that adulthood is something to aspire to, that childhood is almost a silly, undesirable state. Every adolescent eagerly looks forward to the end of the teenage years, when he or she can start voting and drinking a little beer is not a crime. Life awaits — there will be the independence of college, the thrill of the first job, the first salary, sex, a family, and children. And success, glorious success, follows as the adult goes in search of fame, renown, wealth, a fancy house and many cars. The Inner Child, long forgotten, crawls into a corner and stops playing.
Yet, paradoxically, our bodies undergo a curious reversal as we age. The second half of our life seems to be almost a mirror-image reverse of our first half. As a baby, you crawled first on fours, then on two feet; in old age, you start need the third leg of a ‘walking stick’, and then a wheelchair. You start with no teeth, and that is how you end. In old age, you become simple again. We start our lives flat on our backs, as babies. And that is also how we are at the end, once again flat on our backs.
However, this bodily regression does not seem to happen in the mind as well. The adult’s mind in old age does not become joyous, innocent and simple like a child’s. That is why this chapter is so necessary. It’s purpose is to reflect on what was special about you as a child that adulthood took away from you — and how to regain that amazing state of mind again.
Why? Because certain traits that come naturally as part of childhood are extraordinary catalysts of a successful and fulfilling life. Your natural state could be deeply happy, innately joyous. Becoming a child again is not the objective, so much as becoming child-like. Children are inherently incapable, because they are still learning. To understand what makes a child a child, we must look into its brain in its early and see the miracles unfolding there.
The mind of a child
The great physicist Robert Oppenheimer said, ” “There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago.” At the other end of the spectrum, the artistic genius, Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist after he grows up.”
Great minds instinctively recognize that children innately possess ways of seeing, and perceiving and understanding that are unclouded by biases and prejudices — and that somehow growing up spells death for these wonderful qualities. What goes on in the mind of a child? Why does growing up erode it? Child psychologists and educationists such as Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have given us deep insights into the child’s mind.
The brain processes information by forming networks of specialized nerve cells, called neurons, which communicate with one another using electrical and chemical signals. Incoming signals are received by the neuron through branch-like structures called dendrites; outgoing messages are relayed through other branches known as axons. Messages that pass between one neuron’s axons and another neuron’s dendrites, and are the physical basis of learning and memory. The axons and dendrites do not physically touch each other but are separated by a microscopic gap called a synapse. The electrical or chemical signal literally jumps across this gap. Since each neuron can make connections with more than 1,000 other neurons, the adult brain is estimated to have more than 60 trillion neuronal connections.
An adult brain will have 100 billion or so neurons, but amazingly, a baby is born with a lot more cells and circuits that it will eventually need. At birth, a child already all the neurons that it will ever have. The brain literally develops new synapses instantaneously in response to stimuli from its environment, at stunning speed that can hit 1 million synapses a second. When a mother coos to her child, she is literally growing the brain’s synapses on the spot. In the first three years, the brain creates up to twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood These surplus connections are gradually eliminated throughout childhood and adolescence, a process sometimes referred to as blooming and pruning.
This gives us a key insight: you will never regain the amazing brain or rate of cerebral growth you had in your first three years. It is precisely that miraculous growth that makes the child such a voracious learning machine, open to every kind of experience. Seeking out every possible experience is a child’s way of promoting the growth of its own brain, the one organ that will play the most crucial role in its survival and success and understanding of the world.
Creating giant neural networks and strengthening them through experiences while pruning unused ones is a remarkable characteristic of a child’s brain, known as ‘experience based plasticity’. This is what babies to adapt so quickly and flexibly to any environment they’re born into without being limited by any hardwired connections.
Because a child’s brain is actively shaped by childhood experiences, every child is a glutton for new experiences. More importantly, what parents do or don’t do during these years can profound change the way the brain grows and the kind of adult that emerges.
A child that has received unstinting love and care from her parents, its ‘love-and-care connections’ will become strong over time. A parent who constantly punishes a child or is harsh to her will unwittingly strengthen her ‘punitive-and-harsh connections’ With the love-and-care connections pruned out, the child may grow up lacking the basic understanding of love and care that is needed to create healthy, meaningful relationships.
Experience-based brain plasticity is present throughout one’s life but a child’s brain is a lot more plastic than an adult’s. Brain cell are most rapidly pruned during a child’s preschool years; by adulthood they will have reduced to half of that at age two.
With this understanding the child’s cerebral biology and how its brain hungers for new synapses and rapid growth, we can now make sense of three important behaviours that we observe in children who have had nurturing, healthy, caring upbringings through their early years.
1. They observe everything. Nothing bores a child. They voraciously devour details around them. Nothing is irrelevant, nothing is uninteresting.
2. They learn at stunning speeds. Propelled by extraordinary brain growth, a child learns a spectacular array of complex skills and knowledge at speeds they will never rival in later life. These include complex languages, accents, motor skills like walking and feeding themselves and a range of life skills.
3. They evolve. Processing all that they learn, a child evolves into a little human being at astonishing speeds. Unimpeded by preconceptions, they can change their minds, atttitudes, beliefs swiftly in response to new incoming evidence — an ability that sad diminishes in later life, leading sometimes to opinionated, irrational actions in the face of contrary evidence.
Becoming child-like again
Let’s start by stating the obvious — you will never get that amazing child brain back. Also, to be clear, being child-like absolutely does not mean spending more time with children. Bear in mind that you are an adult and probably have a personality and attitudes that would inhibit a child. Remind yourself how many adults made you fell.
So what are a few things you can do to get back in touch with your Inner Child? Here are six:
1. Smile at strangers. This sounds like a simple, even silly, recommendation — but it is what children do. They are open and non-judgmental about those they meet, always willing to be friends. Regaining this innate ability to trust and extend the hand of good fellowship to everyone starts with a smile that lights up your face — and someone else’s life.
2. Give your full attention to every moment of your life: The modern word for this is mindfulness. A healthy child is naturally mindfulness, in the moment, in the flow, completely absorbed in whatever is going on, neither pressured by the future nor hindered by the past.
3. At least once a week, do something you’ve never done before. Children are always doing things they’ve never done before. It is the secret of their voracious learning skills. Surprise yourself every week — visit a place you’ve never been to; chat with the beggar mother and child you have passed every day on your way to work for years; cook and feed a dozen strangers one day; say hello to a complete stranger.
4. Keep learning: Children learn without trying, as a part of their evolution into adults. You are an adult, and the decision to keep learning has to be deliberate and conscious. Anything is fair game: a language you will never need, perhaps Icelandic; writing with your other hand; knitting; carpentry; sketching; playing the tabla.
The writer Robert Heinlein captured the spirit of endless skill-building unforgettably with these words —
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
5. Be non-judgmental. A child is inherently accepting and non-judgmental. They record their reality without judgment, one reason why we feel so at ease with them. Consciously try to be accepting and non-judgmental with people you meet or live or work with. Try to learn who they are rather than why they are who they are. You may be surprised at how this simple behavior can enrich your life.
6. Treat life and work as play: For a child, everything is fun. Their deep inner sense of joy, the ready smile, comes from their ability to find pleasure in all actions, small and big. Imitate a child by deliberately making time to be playful. It can be playing Scrabble or Monopoly or carrot with friends or family or even something as capricious as playing an affectionate practical joke on someone you care for.
Re-discovering childhood is not a dream. All it needs is for you to make a
wish commitment to be child-like. And then make that wish commitment come true.
Baby’s brain begins now: Conception to age 3 http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/why-0-3/baby-and-brain
Welcome To Your Child’s Brain. Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang
The Brain. McGill University. http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_01/a_01_cl/a_01_cl_ana/a_01_cl_ana.html
Synapse elimination and plasticity in developing human cerebral cortex. Huttenlocher, P. R. (1984). American Journal of Mental Deficiency.
The Basics of Brain Development. Joan Stiles and Terry L. Jernigan http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989000/
Fine-Tuning the Baby Brain. Harry T. Chugani. http://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/chungani2004.pdf
Brain development: how your child’s brain grows. https://www.parentingforbrain.com/brain-development/